Thursday, July 31, 2014

TIFF14: TIFF DOCS!: Hopeful signs for a troubled world

This emblematic image from Ossama Mohammed
and Wiam Simav Bedirxan's Silvered Water: 
Syria Self-Portrait captures the spirit of this year's 
TIFF Docs:reflecting with depth and hope 
on global issues.
On Tuesday, Thom Powers the programmer of TIFF Docs tweeted the press release for this year's line-up. Even at first glance it was immediately clear that the slate for TIFF14 was moving in a more issue-oriented direction than in previous years, showcasing films that speak to human and global issues in revelatory ways. While this progamme has always explored the innovative and informative, it has sometimes been hard for me to understand how it distinguishes itself (if that is even necessary) from HotDocs, whose scope and vision and audiences have expanded so dramatically in recent years. Although its breadth is only a fraction of HotDocs, this programme has always had the capacity to speak to and dialogue with the other programmes of the festival. More than ever, the TIFF14 doc programming seems to be doing so. “This year’s selection is heavily populated with rebels, resisters and risk-takers,” says Powers in the press sheet. “That’s true of the characters on screen, but also of filmmakers who are making bold choices in their subject matter and treatment." This is not an empty promise.

A look at the trailer for Silvered Water: Syria Self-Portrait will illustrate what he means. These few moments from a documentary made up of raw footage, shot by people who live in the horror of Syria, quickly brings home the meaning of "risk-taking". Risk-taking artistically, but risk-taking in terms of inviting us into an immersion of self in a heartbreaking place. The narrator is unseen; a child is our focus, whose exclamation at finding flowers amid carnage could act as an emblem for the deepest dreams of those forced to live in war. The combination of form and meaning make this particular doc a high-seed for me.

Children learn the story of Palestine and Israel in
six different schools in that region in
Tamara Erde's This is My Land.
Children and the Middle East continue as themes in Tamara Erde's This is My Land, which observes how six Palestinian and Israeli schools teach the history of that region. What a critical piece of the puzzle to take on. How would we ever otherwise know? Erde is Israeli but reaches across political lines. Since this film was made she has also shot a short film called Disney Ramallah, about a Hamas technical manager, whose son wants to visit Euro Disney. Can we hope for this one also as part of the brand new Short Cuts International programme? 

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, whose history is equally filled with strife, Dieudo Hammadi profiles a group of youth in his home town who want to pass the state exams and secure a more promising future. National Diploma illustrates how a corrupt government, less interested in the welfare of these children, impedes their progress and how the students fight back.
A scene from Dieudo Hammadi's
National Diploma
A fourth film about children and youth profiles young singers in contemporary China as they attempt to win a major nationalized singing competition. Lixin Fan's I Am Here follows his beautiful 2009 doc feature Last Train Home, which looked at the separation and reunion of children and their parents who work hundreds of miles away. 

In the world of adults, I am excited that Robert Kenner, the Oscar-nominated mind and vision behind Food, Inc., has made a documentary about the world of professional skeptics, people who are paid by corporations and others to generate mistrust and doubt about the veracity of climate change. That such people exist should hardly surprise us, but Kenner's plunging capacity to expose these truths will mean that Merchants of Doubt will leave us with little doubt about the long-term harm being done to the planet. It's not clear whether the film has been made as a kind of adaptation of the book of the same title by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway but it seems probable.
Mike Bonnano and Andy Bichlbaum of
The Yes Men Are Revolting
Also on the subject of climate change, Laura Nix and the Yes Men return us to that fabulous duo and their extraordinary staged events, hoaxes and pranks that force the hand of government and industries who deeply affect climate change. This is a great example of how one film can dialogue with another. Merchants of Doubt and The Yes Men are Revolting will make natural screening partners.

Jonathan Nossiter's Natural Resistance
Also looking at climate change is Jonathan Nossiter's Natural Resistance. In 2004, Nossiter's Mondovino became one of only three documentaries ever to be nominated for the Palme d'Or at Cannes. That film looked at the way in which wine production and wine regions have been impacted by climate change. This year's Natural Resistance profiles four Italian vintners who are defying government and industry odds to make all-natural wine.

Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka brings Beats of the Antonov to the fest: a celebration of the "Sudanese farmers, herders and rebels of the Blue Nile and Nuba Mountain regions, who defiantly celebrate their heritage and tend their lands in the face of a government bombing campaign" (TIFF page) People who resist state acts of violence by offering witness to tradition -- this is part of how the human race survives. We need to hear stories like this one to ground ourselves in hope for the future of the world.

Hajooj Kuka's Beats of the Anatov
Hope is an undercurrent of all of these films. In the face of disaster and dissipating cultural values and planetary ecosystems, communities find ways to offer models of endurance and change. These are the reasons to see these movies!

If all this weren't enough, I am thrilled by the decision to re-present Michael Moore's, Roger and Me in a special 25th anniversary screening. I was there in September 1989 and remember it vividly. Last year, when I was culling through old program books I posted this picture on facebook with the following: "'Roger and Me is his first film.' From TIFFoF 89: Michael Moore bows into the international film scene. I remember programmer Kay Armatage (whose contribution to TIFF programming history was profound) telling the public audience that the film had 'come in over the transom' moments before the program book was going to print, and was its last entry for that year. Moore had barely made it in time for the premiere screening (at a smaller Cumberland venue) because he told us he was still putting on "finishing touches". The film debuted that night and the rest is history. Michael Moore often acknowledges a great debt to TIFF." And clearly TIFF is proud of the moment. Hoping to be there once again.

More coming in separate posts: Masters, Galas, Special Presentations and Vanguard.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

TIFF14: Quebec, USA?

Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed in
Jean-Marc Vallée's Wild
Before previewing the very exciting programming already announced, I seem to be getting my feet wet this year by offering some reflection on trends! A full preview of the announced films is coming - so check back soon.

At the first programming presser, a media journalist asked Piers Handling and Cameron Bailey what they made of Canadian filmmakers who have chosen to make their world premieres at Cannes instead of Toronto. Handling responded rightly that this has been going on for years and is a sign of each filmmaker's growing international reputation. 

But the question and the answer beg a second question, which has nothing to do with Cannes. There is an interesting ongoing trend - one that Handling himself also referred to with pride - the increasing movement of Québecois filmmakers into international productions removed from Canadian money and talent. But is it a good thing as he says? Does this mean that they are simply growing as artists and increasing the world's appreciation of them? If it can be so for Cronenberg and Egoyan, who enjoy international popularity, surely it is a cultural slight to not wish the same for the many gifted filmmakers of la belle province.

Julianne Moore in David Cronenberg's
Maps to the Stars
I'm not so sure. I tend to look on it with some concern, since part of the great joy of having home-grown talent is seeing our best do what they do  --- at home. And Québec in my mind currently offers the very best in the country. A part of me is saddened to see some filmmakers gain fame and then vanish to the US. I say this, despite that I love the movies they make there. Last year, Festival double-hitter Jean-Marc Vallée wowed us with the subtle and complex Dallas Buyers Club, one of my favourites of TIFF 2013 and of the whole year in cinema. This year he returns with an adaptation of Cheryl Strayed's memoir Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon, about a woman who walks the Pacific Coast Trail to help herself overcome her own demons. Dallas Buyers Club was nominated for Oscars and Wild already has Oscar buzz. Who isn't proud of that?

Reese Witherspoon and Arnold Oceng in
Philippe Falardeau's The Good Lie
Witherspoon's other film in this year's fest also happens to be directed by the other Québecois director working in the US. Philippe Falardeau, whose last film was the exquisite Monsieur Lazhar, has made The Good Lie, about an American woman who helps four Sudanese refugees find their way on American soil. One of the strongest aspects of Monsieur Lazhar was the direction of ensemble work and the trailer gives every reason to hope for it here too. But news that wunderkind Xavier Dolan is set to do an American feature in Los Angeles, as his next entrée after the stunning Mommy, which debuted at Cannes.... seems to confirm this trend and leaves me a bit sad.

I know that this is really mostly about my own sense of nationalism, of wanting Canada to be seen in the works of Canadian filmmakers. And I know that to some extent this is unreasonable. For years Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig has been making films in the United Kingdom (witness Bad Education and this year's The Riot Club premiering at TIFF, which examines 'posh' power at England's top schools) without us losing track of the fact that she's Danish. And I note that Catalan filmmaker Isabel Coixet has come to New York to make Learning to Drive with Ben Kingsley and Patricia Clarkson. Two strong contenders for me. David Cronenberg, whose Maps to the Stars was one of the Canadian films that premiered at Cannes will see his movie screened as a Gala at TIFF, and Canadian Vallée's Wild will also screen as a gala. These decisions seem strategic, but why couldn't Maps or Wild have been the opening night screener? And what exactly is the distinction between an International Premiere and a World Premiere….?  (For a discussion of the premiere exclusivity controversy, see my previous post today.) I have lamented the recent trend to non-Canadian films opening TIFF. I wrote here in previous years that the decision to let Canadians simply stand on their own in other  programmes is a bit short-sighted. While the filmmakers discussed here crossover well, not all would, and why not give a smaller but significant Canadian film that coveted opening spot? Canadian film needs to continue to have an identity -- filmmakers don't just belong to a global pool. Understanding what makes Canadian filmmakers Canadian has to do with the way they approach the stories they tell. And yes, Sarah Polley is a fantastic example.

Obviously, Canadians leaving their home turf to make films in the US or abroad make wonderful films. It would be ridiculous to limit that for some arbitrary nationalism. I think I just prefer Canadian filmmakers to stay longer in the country, really establishing their Canadian identity before leaving home. Or at least to be always considering how projects might include Canadian elements. Atom Egoyan has set stories outside of Canada to make his films but he nearly always includes Canadian talent. David Cronenberg is renowned for nearly always shooting in Toronto. Will Vallée and Falardeau and last year's Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners) be understood as Canadian or Québecois if they continue to make films outside of Canada? Or will their names simply fade into the multi-cultural haze of any filmmaker making a movie anywhere in the world. The unique vision and voice of Québecois cinema is such because the province's filmmakers turn their lenses on their own world. While I wish them all the success in the world, I hope they will all still make movies close to home. Québec becomes more visible culturally to the rest of Canada when that happens and we learn so much about this essential part of our identity. I am hoping that Vallée and Falardeau and Villeneuve will continue to make movies about Québec and Canada in Canada, so that we can learn from their rich, multi-layered voices. And so that making movies about our own country can continue to be compelling inspiration for future aspiring artists.

TIFF14: To premiere or not to premiere!

Piers Handling and Cameron Bailey make the first
slate of programming announcements on July 22nd.
TIFF made its first significant programming annoucement last week while I had my feet up in a hammock on an island. Today, many more titles are coming down, including a very exciting TIFF Docs slate. Catching up now all at once! Time to return to this blog and start the ramp up to TIFF 2014! 

But first, a commentary. During the past couple of weeks, TIFF's January-announced policy on keeping exclusivity in World and North American premieres for the first four days, has been gaining controversy. I'm not sure I understand why. This makes complete sense to me. The close proximity with other festivals taking place in the same 30 days has meant TIFF has had to do some collegial jockeying as inevitably the best of films showing internationally (Venice, San Sebastian, Tokyo) have made their way to TIFF for their first North American exposure. The bigger challenge by far is in the North American fests (Montreal, New York, and particularly Telluride). As these other fests continue to grow (and none of them are "new"), they have become more anxious for exclusive exhibitions. TIFF insisting on a World or NA premiere in the coveted first four days maintains the integrity of the festival as an exhibitor -- and to my mind counteracts a bit the growing concerns I've had about the way in which TIFF has sometimes offered Gala spots to high profile Hollywood product, already seen at Telluride and set to be released soon anyway. It's an integrity shift that is a good sign: premieres are what they say they are and those who want to get the best of all worlds will not be able to show in Toronto, perhaps making room for some wonderful smaller film that would not have had a chance. Why should a top Hollywood film get seen at Telluride and Toronto in the same week, when another film can have that spot at one or the other fest?

Telluride has always been out there but in the last few years it has become a significant bellwether for the Academy Awards as Academy voters turn up to see what's on view. What used to be an 'avant-premiere' (to quote Piers Handling) relationship with Toronto began to be muddy when the Colorado fest began to expand. I think it's appropriate and that film distributors and even filmmakers should be faced with that tough choice. Last year I remember being surprised at the billed-world premiere evening screening of Pawel Pawlikowski's Ida when both Handling and Pawlikowski told us that the film had already shown in Colorado just days before its official world premiere in Toronto. I liked that they told us, that it wasn't just something I figured out -- but I can see that being problematic. While it can make sense to a filmmaker to go for that potential Academy exposure at Telluride, TIFF programmers have longstanding relationships with filmmakers who respect having been put on the scene by them. (Like Pawlikowski.) This new arrangement protects the filmmakers, as well, from being torn between fests. It's straightforward business and loyalty.  Tough decision, because there would be many films TIFF might like to pull into its first weekend and now can't because they've already been exposed. Some see this as self-damaging and imperialist and time will tell. My own sense is that if it is a leader in film exhibition and film sales, then TIFF should draw these lines in the sand. Some wonderful sleeper hit could be born in the space created by a moved-out Hollywood release. I feel relieved by this decision, actually. It's not all about Oscar!!

Notes on the programming itself in coming posts!